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Published: Friday, 3/19/2004

Great Lakes deepening draws fire from critics

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Several groups yesterday objected to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proceeding with studies related to what could become one of the largest construction projects in America's history - deepening and widening the Great Lakes shipping channel.

Such a project, estimated to cost $10 billion or more, would span the length of the shipping channel from Montreal to Duluth, Minn., with the intent of opening up the lakes to ships hauling containerized goods. Those ships currently are limited to the East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf of Mexico because of their size.

Proponents such as the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority long have yearned for the chance to maximize the economic potential of Great Lakes ports, thereby creating more jobs and keeping the cost of Midwestern goods low.

But opponents claim the environmental consequences outweigh benefits. While they agree

the lake system's locks should be updated, they shudder at the thought of dredging deeper when the Corps has so few places to put silt now that it refuses to abandon its controversial open-lake disposal program.

Toledo, which has by far the most heavily dredged harbor of the Great Lakes, has become an epicenter for that issue.

Gov. Bob Taft and four consecutive Ohio Environmental Protection Agency directors have tried to get the Corps to scale back on the amount of dredged material it dumps back into the lake near Toledo.

Even if the silt is as benign as the Corps claims - something which was once in dispute, according to a letter written by EPA Director Chris Jones - the lake's ecology and its valuable sport-fishing industry can still take a beating from it.

Western Lake Erie is prone to problems whenever it is stirred up, because it is the warmest, shallowest, and most fickle part of the Great Lakes. It also is the most productive for fish, if the water isn't polluted, officials have said.

Activists point out that tons of rock would have to be blasted. A retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist said the same thing in a previous interview with The Blade, explaining that much of the Detroit River is bedrock that had to be blasted when the current shipping channel was built.

Activists also said that opening the lakes to a bigger and more diverse fleet of ships likely would allow more destructive invasive species to enter the system. The U.S. and Canada are struggling as it is to slam the door on Asian carp, zebra mussels, sea lamprey, and other exotics, they said.

"Let's not try to be something we're not. The Great Lakes are not the nation's fourth coast. They are the nation's only Great Lakes," said Jennifer Nalbone, Great Lakes United habitat and biodiversity coordinator.

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at a budget watchdog group called Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the proposed deeper, wider shipping channel an example of the "wasteful projects the Corps is pursuing."

Corps' spokesman David Hewitt issued a statement saying that his agency does its best to achieve environmental sustainability.

The project likely is years away from being voted on by Congress. The next step is the completion of an economic forecast, due by October, 2005, in which the Corps is looking at the lake system's potential for shipping over the next 50 years.

An initial reconnaissance study in which U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) helped the Corps secure more than $2 million in funding has been completed. Results from it could be used to lay the groundwork for a massive feasibility study that could cost some $20 million and take five to seven years to complete after the 50-year forecast is done.

"The fact is the original directive from Congress is still on the table," Tim Eder, the National Wildlife Federation's water resources director, said. "Even though this [reconnaissance study] is just a study, we have to take it seriously."

Miss Kaptur, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Blade in a previous interview she is sensitive to environmental concerns, but has become envious of other coastal regions that have built themselves into "powerhouses" in terms of funding.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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